Event sounds alarm on human trafficking

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 28, 2013 

— When World Champion San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt was only 8 years old, he sat in one of the seats at the Oakland Coliseum and began to dream.

"I'm going to play here someday," he told his dad.

It took plenty of hard work and sacrifice, but at age 22, Affeldt had fulfilled his dream of becoming a professional baseball player and made an unforgettable phone call to his dad.

"Guess where I'm standing?" he told his father. "I'm standing center field, looking at the seats we sat in when I was 8 years old."

Affeldt said his father, a traditional military guy, had to hang up the phone so his son wouldn't hear the tears.

Sitting inside Gateway Community Church in Merced on Saturday, Affeldt reflected on being able to accomplish his dream -- and all the victims of sex trafficking who may never have the opportunity to fulfill theirs.

"Trafficking kills that ability," Affeldt said. "When you take a person and force them to do something, you end their dream. There's too much fear. It kills that ability to dream. That can't happen -- because I had the ability to dream."

Since 2008, Affeldt, who lived in Merced for three years of his childhood, has been leading the initiative to help end human trafficking, a $32 billion a year industry, according to U.S. Department of Justice.

Nearly 300,000 kids are at risk of being exploited sexually in the United States, and the FBI has set up 36 task forces to help catch predators and rescue the victims -- many of whom are often brainwashed, abused and manipulated, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.

But once rescued, the majority of the victims, usually ages 11 to 18, don't have a safe place to call home.

That realization inspired Jenny Williamson to start the nonprofit Courage Worldwide seven years ago. The group builds homes for victims of sex trafficking, providing a safe haven where they can go to begin recovery and healing.

Saturday, Courage Worldwide held an awareness event and concert inside Gateway Church, featuring an appearance by Affeldt and musical performances by The Reel, The Music Room and Cindy Maslov.

When Williamson started researching sex trafficking, she said, she couldn't believe how many children were being used -- and how little support was available.

"These kids are not criminals. They're victims and they need resources," Williamson said. "I was struck by the fact that there was a lack of homes and services for the victims."

With safe houses already open in Placer County and Africa, the organization is planning to open one in Hawaii and any other place a safe house is needed -- starting with cities that have higher trafficking activity.

The homes provide the children with everything from counseling and medical services to life coaching and art therapy.

"(The girls aren't used to) something as simple as sleeping through the whole night without someone waking them up," Williamson said. "Many of the girls have nightmares or flashbacks, so we have someone available 24 hours."

One victim, who described being beaten, starved, burned and tortured by age 10, shared her journey on stage Saturday.

"I wanted them to kill me, and I asked them why they didn't," she said. "They said, 'It's because you're worth nothing dead.' "

Courage Worldwide's Chief Operating Officer Scott Edwards said that in many cases, the victims may not even realize they are being used for money.

"They desire love and created this false idea of what love is," Edwards said. "We've had 20 kids coming through the house and they're so involved in the process, that it's hard for them to step out of the life."

Although the fight may be far from over, Williamson said there's increased awareness about sex trafficking and the laws are finally catching up. The group also provided training to law enforcement and first responders Friday so they can spot the signs of sex trafficking.

With influential people such as Affeldt lending their name to the cause, the organization moves one step closer to raising awareness about modern-day slavery happening in nearly every city.

"I will not stop. I will get as much media attention as I can," Affeldt said. "I can use my influence to help end human trafficking. We have to do something. There has to be a movement where someone stands up and says, 'Enough.' "

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.